Everyone’s afraid of something — mice, flying in planes, the dark, cockroaches, public speaking, Kim Kardashian, maybe all of the above. What makes it a phobia is the intensity. A phobia is classified as a fear of something that poses little or no actual danger, and it causes such a strong emotional and physiological reaction that it inhibits a person’s ability to function.
Phobias are clinically diagnosed as types of anxiety disorders, and symptoms can include panic, rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, trembling and a strong desire to flee. Some people with phobias experience panic attacks when exposed to the thing they fear — and they’re nothing to joke about. When your girlfriend is jumping up and down on a chair because she saw a mouse scurry across the floor, she’s not having a panic attack. If she were, you’d know it.
Panic attacks can be so crippling that sometimes people are actually convinced they’re dying. They can experience increased heart rate, sweating, shaking, trouble breathing, a choking feeling, chest pain, nausea, dizziness, a feeling of detachment from oneself, numbness or tingling and chills or hot flashes.
There unfortunately hasn’t been much research conducted on phobias, so the cause of them is usually unknown. "There are nature and nurture components to phobias," said Kathy Hoganbruen, spokeswoman for the National Mental Health Association, on WebMD. "While we don't know exactly why or where phobias originate, they are a type of mental illness, with genetics playing a role, as well as environment, meaning maybe someone had a negative or traumatic experience related to the core of their phobia."
Below are five of the most common phobias, as well as three of the most bizarre.
5 OF THE MOST COMMON PHOBIAS
Experts debate the reasons why arachnophobia, or the fear of spiders, is so common among humans, but evolutionary psychologists have proposed a logical explanation that works not only for arachnophobia but also ophidiophobia (fear of snakes) and museophobia (fear of mice): Because these creatures are sometimes venomous or carry disease, humans may have developed the ability to perceive them as threatening and thus emotionally and physiologically respond with fear. This was necessary to protect the human species so they could continue to survive.
Others argue that this may explain a normal fearful reaction but that it would evolutionarily hurt the human species to respond to such creatures with phobia-intense fear because it would hinder human functioning — e.g., it’s kind of difficult to run away when you’re having a panic attack.
While most people wouldn’t feel comfortable standing on the edge of a 50-story building’s roof, people with acrophobia experience such an intense fear of heights that this type of experience would most likely trigger a panic attack and possibly inhibit their ability to step down from a high place.
Between 2% and 5% of people suffer from acrophobia, and women are twice as likely to be affected as men. Like arachnophobia, some experts hypothesize its prevalence in humans is due to an evolutionary need for us to fear high places in order to avoid danger. However, others contend that it’s due to a traumatic experience involving heights.
Agoraphoia is one of the most common yet also one of the most misunderstood phobias. This disorder involves extreme fear and anxiety of places where escape might be difficult, such as wide-open spaces or crowded places. This often stems from a person’s fear of having a panic attack in public, usually based on a previous experience in which this happened to them. Other agoraphobics suffer anxiety mainly due to a fear of embarrassing themselves in public, but some experts either classify this as a separate subset of agoraphobia known as “social agoraphobia” or attribute it to a type of social anxiety disorder.
Women are more likely to be agoraphobic, and symptoms usually begin around the age of 25 years. Psychiatrists often treat agoraphobic individuals with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), selective norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) or other anti-anxiety medicaitons, as well as cognitive behavioral therapy.
Claustrophobia is characterized by an irrational fear of enclosed or small spaces. It may sound like the opposite of agoraphobia, but both disorders are based on a fear of being trapped. As you probably already know, claustrophobic people typically avoid enclosed spaces like elevators, subway cars, airplanes or cars in heavy traffic.
The cause is unknown, though some experts believe it stems from a traumatic childhood experience. Claustrophobia usually develops in childhood or teenage years and can disappear in adulthood. It usually requires treatment to overcome.
Once when I was in college, I got hit with a stomach bug in the middle of the night and ran to the bathroom to puke. My boyfriend knocked on the door, I mumbled that I was fine and he said “OK, but I got up to give you this” and dropped cleaning supplies through the crack in the door before running back to bed. He had an irrational fear of vomit, though it probably wouldn’t have been classified as a phobia.
Considered one of the most common phobias in the world, emetophobia is characterized by an intense, irrational fear or anxiety pertaining to vomiting. This could mean a fear of vomiting, nausea, seeing or hearing others vomit, seeing vomit in general or all of the above. In extreme cases, emetophobic individuals may avoid young children, parties that involve alcohol or, for women, even pregnancy.
3 OF THE WEIRDEST PHOBIAS
They’re sticky. They scream a lot. They’re full of germs. There are plenty of reasons to not be a fan of kids. But pedophobic people don’t just dislike them; they look at them like they’re that creepy kid from “The Omen,” or the dead girl that crawls out of the TV in “The Ring” or — and this one’s the worst — that terrifying Japanese boy in “The Grudge.” It’s an actual fear that’s diagnosed and treated by psychiatrists. We’d love to hear Erik Erickson or Sigmund Freud’s analysis of the causes behind this one.
While we can’t really blame a person for being scared of ventriloquist dummies (so creepy!), automatonophobia can include the fear of any inanimate object that represents a live human, animal or creature — such as animatronic creatures, mannequins and wax statues. This fear is more common in children than adults, and those who suffer from it manage it through avoidance. We assume this means a dependence on online shopping and keeping a good distance from Madame Tussaud’s.
Most of us joke about Friday the 13th — but for those with friggatriskaidekaphobia, there might as well be a psychotic serial killer in a hockey mask running around the neighborhood. People with this phobia fear bad things will happen to them on the Fridays that fall on the 13th.
In reality, some statistics suggest Friday the 13th might actually be safer than other days. The Dutch Centre for Insurance Statistics has stated that "fewer accidents and reports of fire and theft occur when the 13th of the month falls on a Friday than on other Fridays, because people are preventatively more careful or just stay home. Statistically speaking, driving is slightly safer on Friday the 13th, at least in the Netherlands; in the last two years, Dutch insurers received reports of an average 7,800 traffic accidents each Friday.”